The wireless carrier conundrum: Perpetuating the myth of connectivity

I'd hate to be a wireless carrier. Customers don't like you, regulators are constantly sniffing around the edges of your operations and you're perpetually faced with the Hobson's Choice of investing billions in new network capability or risk falling behind other, similarly vilified competitors. In short, you can't win. And the recent spate of negative publicity surrounding the real-world experiences of customers using 3G-capable smartphones suggests this situation won't improve anytime soon.

It's their own fault

In many respects, carriers are victims of their own marketing. In trying to sell us sleek, next-generation handsets like Apple's iPhone and Palm's Pre, they almost always use the same kind of demo to illustrate just how insanely great these things are. Typically, a disembodied hand swipes the screen, deftly navigating from a GPS-enabled app to a messaging application before finishing off with an almost-mandatory trip through the Facebook app. These carefully crafted videos illustrate the ideal usage scenario -- where you live and work in the shadows of your very own cell tower, and your neighborhood is surrounded by friendly police officers who actively keep every other 3G smartphone-carrying user miles away. In reality, you couldn't buy this kind of network performance even if you could afford it. But illusion sells, so the carriers' unrealistic marketing campaigns continue to set ridiculous expectations.

Carmi Levy: Wide Angle Zoom (200 px)So given the huge gap between expectation in reality, when you get home with your new wonderphone and realize you live in a 3G dead zone, you're forgiven for cursing under your breath that maps now load in minutes and not seconds, and you often find yourself re-sending e-mail messages because the process fails more often than it succeeds. Forget 3G speeds: You'd be happy with any connection at all.

Yet 3G underperformance is the industry's dirty little secret as it continues to market next-generation, blazingly fast wireless for all its worth. Left to their own devices, consumers are stuck either asking friends who live nearby for their anecdotal experiences with a given carrier, searching online forums and blogs for anything remotely relevant, or crossing their fingers and hoping they don't live or work in the wrong area.

Urban spooning -- less fun than it sounds

For users of certain high-end smartphones in densely populated urban areas, even 2G service is a distant pipe dream as advanced handhelds spin their virtual wheels waiting for some form of network connection. These data-rich devices place so much more strain on the underlying wireless infrastructure than earlier smartphones that when enough of them show up in the same geographic area and start reaching out, they end up in the wireless equivalent of a traffic jam.

Users in smaller population centers are luckier in this respect. Outside of densely populated urban areas -- or heavily attended conferences like SXSW that have generated their own form of wireless network gridlock -- they rarely run into the kind of end user crush that prompts some city dwellers to walk the streets looking for better signal.

To most of us, the answer is simple: The carriers should build more capacity in areas where high density meets high demand. Unfortunately, nothing is ever simple in the Byzantine world of wireless. Even if carriers wanted to load the equipment in their trucks and fan out to every cell tower in the city, regulations from overlapping jurisdictions ranging from local/municipal for zoning to the FCC for transmission rights and spectrum use often mean delays of months and years before long suffering customers see any kind of improvement.

By then, of course, many disenchanted wireless users may have already bolted to competing carriers. Where, doubtless, some of them will run into similar bandwidth issues. For now, it's a problem with no immediate solution.

It wasn't always this way

I don't remember this being as annoying before 3G became prevalent. Perhaps earlier generation smartphones based on the now seemingly ancient CDMA and GSM standards could get away with pokey, inconsistent performance because we already had such low expectations. Like the early days of dial-up Internet access, simply getting online and staying online was considered an achievement. If you lost signal every once in a while, that was the price of going wireless. Or so it seemed. The user experience, in all its text-only e-mail and stripped down half-baked WAP browser glory, was so lame to begin with that not even a substandard network could ruin the experience. We simply didn't know better, and even if we did, our expectations were still pretty limited.

These days, as smartphones have sprouted advanced, high-resolution touchscreens and browsers that easily replicate the desktop experience, such back-end shortcomings are a little more obvious. And a little more painful. It ticks us off to have come so far with such incredibly capable hardware, only to be let down right at the gates to heaven itself by a network that just can't deliver the goods. Or would deliver the goods if only the darn carrier would chime in to and spend the money on things that don't necessarily make for great commercials, but nevertheless improve the real-world experience for real-world customers.

Is it worth it?

It's easy to conclude that carriers do themselves a disservice by misrepresenting their ability to deliver acceptable network performance. It's also easy to conclude that long-term customer retention needs to take precedence over short-term subscriber growth.

But as long as the cost-benefit ratios to carriers for tactical improvements to their existing 3G networks tilt toward the status quo, nothing will change. Carriers will continue to oversell 3G capability, and they'll repeat the same process when the industry inevitably transitions into even higher capacity 4G infrastructure.

For their part, consumers, wowed by ever cooler demonstrations from carriers more interested in flash than substance, will continue to buy into the myth that what they see on television will closely reflect their actual ownership experience. Carriers will certainly continue to deserve their tarnished reputations, but consumers unwilling to take the time to understand the differences between 3G fact and 3G reality deserve at least part of the blame as well.

Carmi Levy is a Canadian-based independent technology analyst and journalist still trying to live down his past life leading help desks and managing projects for large financial services organizations. He comments extensively in a wide range of media, and works closely with clients to help them leverage technology and social media tools and processes to drive their business.

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